Fidel Castro through the pages

One book or film is not enough to understand the iconic status of the Cuban revolutionary

Updated - November 27, 2016 12:24 am IST

Published - November 27, 2016 12:15 am IST

How did a man born to a Spanish immigrant in a small island across the Straits of Florida turn out to be so instantly recognisable in the Latin-speaking world, an icon in countries that were born out of colonial and anti-racial struggles in central and southern Africa, a legendary figure symbolising solidarity in other parts of the Third World including India, and a bugbear for the ruling classes in the U.S.? How did Cuba, the largest island nation in the tiny Caribbean, achieve such an outsize geopolitical significance for six decades?

Role as a revolutionary

It is not easy for someone from India to answer these questions without secondary references. My understanding of Fidel Castro — apart from what I read in history books (Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes that describes the Cuban revolution, for instance), newspapers, and commentaries — came in a profound way after reading Ignacio Ramonet’s book-length interview, My Life: Fidel Castro, in which the Cuban leader explains his transformation from a student leader committed to political change, to a left-nationalist, and finally to a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary. Castro comes across as recognising his role as a revolutionary who, along with his comrades and countrymen, set out to reclaim Latin America’s independence from the Monroe Doctrine, and as someone who failed to export the Cuban revolutionary model using the guerrilla armed struggle to other parts of the continent.

He comes across as reflective, even if defensive, about Cuba’s good social development, racial equity, and intellectual progress even as it failed to diversify its economy, or raise incomes and living standards substantially. Like a Latin American anti-imperialist and perhaps the most accomplished one at that, he rails against the machinations of the U.S. ruling classes and the multiple conspiracies that were hatched to assassinate him which backfired, but enhanced his popularity and strengthened his countrymen’s resolve to live up to his slogan, “Patria O Muerte” (“Fatherland or death”).

Castro articulates Cuban socialism as a humanist alternative to extant capitalism in today’s globalised world. This is visible in his insistence on state emphasis on higher education and social development to overcome racial inequality, which persists “financially” but not “socially” in Cuba. It is seen in his insistence on a different form of internationalism and global exchange of knowledge as a commons, exemplified by the export of know-how and doctors from Cuba into poorer countries for healthcare.

The book is a deep insight into the mindset of a revolutionary who set out to change the world with the means he had and boldly deployed. Which other country would have sent troops to faraway Africa to fight alongside anti-colonial forces in an age when international solidarity for causes are relegated to statements and communiqués?

Love beyond borders

The other way of understanding Castro’s legacy is to see the immense respect and love for him among present-day Latin American leaders, both of the “new socialist” and the social democratic variety. In Oliver Stone’s documentary, South of the Border , leaders from Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil pay tribute to the Cuban revolution’s legacy even as they express their differences with it.

There is an interesting scene featuring Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Cuban President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) in conversation with Stone. When Stone asks whether the Cubans were godfathers to the new socialists in Latin America, Raul says, “No, we aren’t godfathers, they aren’t our heirs”, adding that these regimes have to learn from each other’s ideas such as Socialism of the 21st century.

The appreciation for Castro is not limited to Latin America. It is seen in how Nelson Mandela travelled to Cuba after his release from prison to thank him for sending troops to Angola, a battle that hastened the independence of South West Africa (present-day Namibia) and weakened the resolve of the apartheid regime in South Africa, leading to its end.

In Stone’s other documentary, Fidel Castro: The Untold Story (2001), Mandela’s visit is seen on camera. Before diplomatic business begins, Mandela asks Castro, “Before we come to anything, you must tell me when you are coming to South Africa.” Soon, the scenes cut to the evocative welcome for Castro from legislators in post-apartheid South Africa, who sing heartily as the Cuban revolutionary enters the National Assembly.

Anger across the seas

It is not enough to understand the love and appreciation for Castro in the Third World. His legacy is also the intense hatred and anger among Cuban émigrés on the other side of the Florida straits in Miami (see the Channel 4 documentary 638 ways to kill Castro ), which has fuelled the Republican party machine for decades and has had an effect on the domestic politics of the U.S. It is visible in the caricaturing of Castro and his demonisation by the U.S. mainstream media.

But a more robust critique of Castro and his legacy and the state of affairs in a socialist Cuba is offered by the blogger Yoani Sanchez in her evocative blog, ‘Generation Y’. State socialism in Cuba might have enhanced livelihoods and educated millions of impoverished Cubans, but the lack of political freedoms and the suffocating one-party rule has had its severe flaws too, which are articulated well by Sanchez.

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